I'm suffering, so don't tell me to 'think positive'
I’m sat here writing this article while listening to a debate on breakfast TV about the many issues raised from that Oprah interview. Despite what you believe as being true or not, I think many people can agree that it has highlighted the many issues surrounding racism, mental health, trolling and tabloids, not just in the UK but around the world.
Of course, I have my own opinions on these issues, but there is one I can speak about from personal experience. When I listened to the interview the issue that really resonated with me was the feeling that,
"You just have to get on with it. We’ve all been there."
I have recently seen many such comments flung at people in the public eye, especially through social media, and it really makes me annoyed. Comments like,
"What have they got to be worried about."
"Poor them!" (said sarcastically)
"They should shut up and put up."
It’s the attitude of the ‘stiff upper lip’, the ability to carry on with your daily activities and be happy even though you may be struggling and in pain. Whether this attitude stems from the war or not, I don’t know, the saying ‘keep calm and carry on’ springs to mind, that no matter what is happening you need to be able to handle it.
When you are suffering with your mental health you also have an additional struggle with guilt and shame. It can be extremely damaging to hear views such as, ‘there are others worse off than you’, ‘there are kids starving’, that you should ‘be glad for what you have’, essentially that you should, ‘rise above it all’. There seems to be this mistaken belief that just because others have unpleasant experiences that this should somehow make you feel better. Just because terrible things happen to other people it doesn’t lessen your pain.
Some people use this kind of language as a method of motivation. They attempt to encourage you into action by telling you to ‘get a grip’, we even use this kind of language with ourselves saying, ‘I need to think positively’. This kind of attitude isn’t helpful to anyone, let alone the sufferer, and can have the opposite effect to that which was intended. Yes, there may be other people suffering out there, but that doesn’t make your situation any better.
When such attitudes are levelled at those struggling with their mental health it makes you question yourself,
‘What’s wrong with me?’
‘I should be able to handle this’.
‘I shouldn’t feel like this’.
‘Don’t be so selfish’.
It makes you feel like you are in some way default, weak and you need to have more self-control and may even cause you to internalise you’re feeling and not speak out about them,
‘I’m over-reacting… I’ve nothing to complain about… I need to get a grip / toughen up’.
If you are struggling in life it’s important to accept that you can’t stop difficult thoughts from arising, or the feelings associated with them.
Have you ever been worried about something and someone said: “Don’t worry it might never happen.”
Well, how did that work out for you? Were you immediately able to skip down the street in a carefree manner, and what about later when you were alone? Were you able to control your worrying then?
I’m guessing not.
It is important to acknowledge our pain as a valid experience, as a normal and natural part of being human, to be self-compassionate and accept that you are allowed to feel like this.
In the same way, others need to recognise and acknowledge that they are not you, they don’t share your biology, experiences and background. They need to accept that although they may be able to respond to their thoughts and feelings in the way they want to, not everyone can. Some of us get hooked by our thoughts, we find it difficult to distance ourselves from them and this in turn impacts on how we feel and react.
Everyone struggles with something, I get extremely anxious going to the doctors for a simple check-up, something most people find quite easy. On the other hand, I easily manage the nerves associated with public speaking, something a lot of people struggle with. We are all different, we all struggle sometimes, judging and criticising others when they tell us they are suffering is insensitive and unempathetic.
In fact, when people express their own difficult feelings it shows they care, feelings of worry, guilt and shame show you care about others; feelings of loneliness show you value company and feelings of incompetence shows you value responsibility and duty. After all, if you think about it, a lack of feelings and empathy has long been associated with serial killers and sociopaths!
When a loved one says these unhelpful things to you, it isn’t necessarily intended to do you harm, in fact they may be doing so with the best of intentions, because they care and hope it may motivate you. They don’t want to see you suffering, they may feel helpless, frustrated and uncomfortable. But unfortunately, their methods to motivate you into action can have the opposite effect. It can exacerbate the spiral of self-doubt, guilt and shame. It can discourage you from expressing your feelings, talking openly and seeking or accepting professional help.
So, what can we do instead?
For the sufferer you can practice acceptance and self-compassion. Accept that it’s okay to feel like this, that you are human and many people suffer just like you, I do, your friends do, everyone does. Speak to yourself kindly, like you would a good friend, say 'I'm suffering right now, what could I say to myself that would be kind and compassionate?' And if need be seek help.
Seeking help doesn’t mean you are ‘failing’ it means you are being kind to yourself, that you care about your own mental health and that you care about those around you. Being self-compassionate isn't selfish or self-indulgent, when you are compassionate with yourself it means you are in a better place to help others.
If you are approached by someone who is suffering it can be tempting to say, ‘Don’t worry, you’ll be fine’; ‘It might never happen’; ‘Cheer up’, but ask yourself:
How is saying this helpful to that person?
Am I saying this to help them, or because it’s easier and reduces my own feelings of anger/frustration/worry/stress/discomfort?
How would I feel if someone said this to me when I was in pain and struggling?
Instead, you could try:
- 'I can see/hear/notice this is distressing for you, I’m here for you.'
- 'Tell me about it.'
- 'How can I support you?'
Try to avoid saying things like,
- 'Cheer up.'
- 'Don’t worry.'
- 'It will be fine.'
- 'I understand.'
Often just having someone listen can help. Try to avoid giving advice, maybe ask questions such as, “What would you like to do about this?”; “What are your options?”; “Where could we find more help with this?”
I worry about humankind, it saddens me to see people slam others on social media because someone has the courage to express their struggles. I worry about how we judge others when we have no experience of being in their shoes. I worry about how some people see everything as black and white with no middle ground. I worry about how we criticise others despite our own failings.
But mainly I worry how some people don’t worry about these things at all.
“The very same thing that you judge from where you are— may very well be something totally different in meaning on the other side of the world. The problem with making hasty judgments is that it will emphasize your ignorance at the end of the day.”
- C. JoyBell C.